In short, polyester is plastic. Polyester fabric is a synthetic fabric created by bonding polyester fibers together. Polyester fibers are the product of a chemical reaction between coal, petroleum, air, and water. Not only is polyester derived from non-renewable resources, but the process of extraction yields a high carbon footprint and significant byproducts.

Polyester is a polymer (a polymer is a chain of repeating molecular units). Most commonly, the polyester polymer is made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE) molecules. Since PET is a plastic, it is not porous like natural fibers, thus it is an effective moisture barrier and commonly used for packaging such as water bottles. Packaging made from PET is labeled with the recycling number ‘1’.

The clear plastic water bottle you are drinking out of is the very same material as the clothing you might be wearing. The PET is just pulled, stretched, and melted in different ways.

can we recycle polyester?

Fortunately, PET is recyclable in a closed-loop recycling system. A closed-loop recycling system converts a product into another product without changing the inherent properties of the material. Many companies are now recycling the clear plastic bottles made of PET into polyester fabric. Though this does reclaim a synthetic fiber that may otherwise fill landfills, it still encourages polyester’s presence in the apparel industry.

So PET (polyester) has the potential to be recycled in a closed-loop recycling system. However, the actualization of that potential lies in a three step process: collection, conversion, and selling.

Unfortunately, there is not currently a collection system for polyester textiles. Currently, PET can only enter the closed-loop recycling system through the form of a plastic with the recyclable label ‘1’.

As far as conversion goes, the process of recycling can yield a significant carbon footprint.  When PET is reclaimed and processed into polyester fibers for the use of polyester fabric, the material is dyed. The dyeing process is less consistent for reclaimed substances, so the process often uses more chemicals, energy, and water to achieve the desired effect than it would to dye a raw material.

does polyester contain BPA?

No, polyester (PET or PETE) does not contain BPA (bisphenol A). However, studies show that plastic products that do not contain BPA and are marketed as BPA-free, still release chemicals that act like estrogen. BPA has the ability to mimic the sex hormone estrogen and act as an endocrine disruptor. An endocrine disruptor is something that interferes with how your hormone system works. They can effect sexual development, cognitive and brain development, susceptibility to cancer, obesity, learning disabilities – basically, your hormones call the shots.

In a study conducted on BPA-free plastic products that are designed to come in contact with food, 70% of these products released chemicals that act like estrogen after they were exposed to just salt water or alcohol. After being exposed to conditions that the products would normally be subject to by consumer use (such as sunlight, washing and drying, or microwaving), more than 95% of the BPA-free products released chemicals that act like estrogen. Unfortunately, an assessment of the effects of these chemicals on our bodies is yet to be taken.

For more about what we don’t know (but would like to) about plastics and hormones look here.

For the full study on endocrine disruptors in plastics look here.

what is a polyester blend?

A polyester blend is a fabric containing a certain percentage of polyester fibers (the care tag on your garment should tell you the exact number) that are mixed with another fiber to create desired characteristics in the final product. For example, cotton is blended with polyester fiber to add comfort in breathability and softness, or rayon is added to create a shiny finish to the textile.

what are the properties of polyester fabric?

Polyester fabric is extremely durable. Since it is hydrophobic (water resistant), polyester fabric also dries quickly. It is also wrinkle resistant and does not stretch or shrink. Polyester fabric is a (nearly) ideal choice for outdoor and sporting clothing and gear.

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